Forensic anthropologists analyze skeletal human remains to identify the key characteristics of the deceased individual. Most forensic anthropologists work at universities and forensic investigative facilities, according to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville Forensic Anthropology Center. Forensic anthropology is such a specialized field that few practice it full-time, according to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Most in the field also teach or conduct other anthropological research.
The chief professional skill of a forensic anthropologist is being able to provide as much information as possible about decomposed human remains. Forensic anthropologists must be able to catch telling signs in these piles of bones and other matter. They must have the skills to study the remains to provide information about the person such as age, sex, ancestry, height, weight and unique physical features. Sometimes, they can speculate on the person's life, such as possible careers. This capability requires precision, patience and care, including the ability to detect nuance in remains and the knowledge to draw the appropriate conclusions.
Forensic anthropologists must be able to clean bones and study them for evidence of wounds that can pinpoint the cause of death, such as stab or bullet wounds. They also may need to estimate a time of death. They must be able to decipher these clues from small signs in the bones. They do not run DNA tests or collect other trace evidence, such as hair, and they do not speak with suspects or loved ones. Many forensic anthropologists also must have the composure and confidence to testify in court about the body's identity or the injuries the individual suffered
Forensic anthropologists must be capable of working closely with medical examiners, forensic pathologists, forensic odontologists (dentists) and homicide detectives when studying a case. They must be able to work in this collaborative atmosphere and share professional information with their colleagues. In addition to work related to homicide investigations, forensic anthropologists may work with governments or human rights organizations to investigate war crimes or natural catastrophes, helping to identify bodies and provide an explanation for the deaths of large groups of victims. They must be able to handle these difficult, tragic circumstances without allowing emotion to overwhelm the task at hand.
Education and Training
You need extensive training to enter the field of forensic anthropology. The process starts with six to 10 years of education. Most practicing forensic anthropologists have at least a master's degree and many have a doctorate, according to the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Degree fields include either physical anthropology or biological anthropology. Many prospective forensic anthropologists look for opportunities during their education to assist practicing forensic anthropologists to gain the skills and experience that allows them to do their duties in the field.
Tom Gresham is a freelance writer and public relations specialist who has been writing professionally since 1999. His articles have appeared in "The Washington Post," "Virginia Magazine," "Vermont Magazine," "Adirondack Life" and the "Southern Arts Journal," among other publications. He graduated from the University of Virginia.